Scenes from the Mall

Sharon December 15th, 2008

Last night, Eric and I did something we simply never do – we went to the mall.  My mother was visiting, and kindly offered to babysit while the two of us went out to dinner, and since we do this sort of thing quite infrequently, we jumped at the chance to do a few errands uninterrupted and have a quiet meal together.  Our first two choices for dinner were closed, due to the massive power outages that still plague our region.  So, since we knew the lights were on, we ended up at the Crossgates mall.  And I have to say, even to my doomy eyes, the experience was pretty unsettling.

The restaurants were reasonably busy, and there were cars in the parking lots.  In fact, my initial reaction was that things didn’t seem to be as bad as I’d read here.  My mother had stopped to have lunch with a friend earlier today, and said that the restaurant had just re-opened, after four days without power, but was packed with people who were content to drink coffee and sit somewhere with central heating. More than 10,000 people in my region are still without power, and we figured that this would push people into the malls.  And while Sunday night isn’t peak shopping, generally speaking, an evening this close to the holidays would have been busy.

It wasn’t.  The restaurant was less busy than I’d anticipated but not empty – but the mall itself was a ghost town.  Here we were, 10 days before Christmas, on a night where for many the mall was warm, lighted, unlike home, and it was nearly empty.  The people who were there simply weren’t buying – I counted two shopping bags during the 2 hours we spent wandering around, looking and listening in gloomy fascination at the demise of American shopping. 

Every store was offering at least 30% off, often on everything, and often that over and above other discounts.  Several stores had “store closing” or “going out of business” signs up already.  Many stores had the appearance of having given up – the window of the Oshkosh children’s store, instead of cute baby mannequins in overalls was filled with half-packed boxes.  One store, selling novelties and junk was literally deserted – we walked in and waited, called out and no one appeared for a good 15 minutes – we finally gave up (we didn’t want to buy anything, we were simply curious about whether the store was actually as abandoned as it appeared to be).  No one stole anything - there really wasn’t anything to steal, or anyone to steal it.  At one store, three employees had put up a nerf basketball hoop and were taking shots, clearly having given up on sales.  Several stores looked as though their shelves hadn’t been neatened in several days.

The single line we saw was at the dollar store (not coincidentally, the only place we bought anything – I found a deck of Uno cards 2/$1 for the boys and clothespins for a buck) – otherwise, most stores had no customers at all.  When we stopped and chatted with store employees, most of them said they’d had few, if any, sales.   

Malls are not the place to restore your faith in humanity’s ability to survive hard times, and they tend to bring out a black irony in me.  The sight of some poor kid trying to get anyone to taste a plastic sausage from Hickory Farms – he called to us the full length of the aisle, and practically chased us down the corridor - was funny.  But of course, underlying the dark humor was the fact that this young man and all the employees who are paying for college (the mall is right next to SUNY Albany and draws many employees from there) and making a living are about to be the next victims in a round of layoffs.  We know, for example, that if enrollments all off enough at SUNY, my husband will probably get the axe as well – that kid with the sausage is a link in a chain that goes to our family, and thousands of other places as well.

And you can see the calculations in people’s eyes - why buy today, when things are at 40% off?   They will be 70% off after the holidays, when the chain goes bankrupt.  And then, of course, they won’t be there at all.  Eric and I stopped in Williams Sonoma to speculate on at what price we’d be willing to buy another Le Creuset dutch oven or a serious Wusthof butcher knife – the price we’d consider was well below the present valuation, but getting closer than they had been in years. 

The problem, of course, is that everyone’s ability and willingness to buy is contracting faster than the prices are deflating – it doesn’t matter how cheap the dutch oven is, in a sense – I don’t want it badly enough to spend what money we have on it, not if Eric’s job is in jeapardy.  A million such decisions and we have…detente, but not in a good way.  Even at Borders I couldn’t find anything I really wanted to buy.

The stench of failure is death to retail – even those chains that survive, in bleak half-empty malls that have to cut their heating back because revenues are down will then suffer from the new atmosphere, the stench of disaster.  Who goes to those kinds of bleak malls? 

I tried to think about what we might do with this mall, and the other malls.  Could it house students in a new, lower budget subsidized education system  – they could grow food for the dining halls and make the storefronts into small dorm style apartments. Could one revitalize a small number of malls with local businesses?  It is hard to imagine every needing anything on this scale again – there are shops that sell only caps, those that sell only shirts describing multi-gendered, nude sprting events, calendars, nauseatingly scented candles that poison the atmosphere,  (I have to say, the demise of Yankee Candle will not bring me sorrow – I can only even walk past them from as far away as possible – the stench is repulsive), and overpriced stuffed animals.  It is impossible to imagine the need for this much retail space in a more constrained society without this acute over-specialization.  So little of this meets actual needs. 

I admit, the sheer emptiness of it shocked even me – I knew how much retail sales had fallen, but knowing and seeing are two different things.   What are you seeing in your local retail sector?


76 Responses to “Scenes from the Mall”

  1. elle says:

    Here in Ohio – seems usual at the mall- lots of discount signs though. Target was PACKED- not a spot in the parking lot.


  2. Shelley says:

    Anne and KathyD
    Remember how the orchestra played as the Titanic sank in order to try and calm the panic? Doesn’t that surreal feeling in the malls and stores seem similar?

  3. MEA says:

    Still trouble by the idea of converting malls to living space. How are we going to heat them, for a start?

  4. Here we have good malls and bad malls. The good malls seem to be doing fine. One of the bad malls is actually down to a single store. They have boarded off most of the lower level, but you can still walk through the completely empty upper level. The one store that’s left? A combination of a catalog sales outlet, head shop (drug paraphernalia) and wine making kits. There is also a tax preparation office that has a separate entrance.

    That said, this isn’t going to affect everywhere the same way. Some places won’t notice the downturn for a bit. If you live in a wealthy area, odds are good that you are fine right now. Some places will look like business as usual, but the dollars left are being spread over a smaller area.

  5. curiousalexa says:

    good heavens, reading about all these sales makes me think maybe I should go shopping, something I avoid between thanksgiving and christmas! and a slight concern that stores won’t exist after new years…

    Woodfield mall in suburban chicago is supposedly a big destination. as I went past it on the bus last night, the parking lot didn’t seem terribly full.

  6. Florence says:

    Just outside Houston, First Colony Mall’s parking lot was jammed Saturday. We didn’t actually go into the mall because we were just going to eat at a nearby restaurant so I couldn’t say whether people were buying but there were certainly no empty parking places.

  7. Kari says:

    Here in Northern VA it seems like business as usual. I went in to Borders to kill some time before an appointment and the checkout line snaked halfway through the store, all registers running. Target is also extremely busy.
    I don’t know what the mall is like, I haven’t been in one in ages, but my stepdaughter works as a seasonal at the Gap there and says it’s pretty busy there.
    I don’t know- the housing bubble has popped pretty dramatically here- there are foreclosures all over the place and my county is one of the harder hit in the state, but people still seem to be shopping like they always did, and restaurant parking lots are full. Maybe it’s all the federal government/defense contractor jobs here-we seem to be somewhat insulated from mass layoffs, for now, but it would seem to me like people shouldn’t be counting on that to continue. We sure aren’t.

  8. Boysmom says:

    Over at Greenpa’s, someone was saying as how buildings like malls aren’t built to last more than 20 or 30 years. So maybe what to do with the buildings isn’t so much an issue as is how to keep people from squatting there and being hurt as they fall apart?
    Haven’t seen anything different around here with the mall than is normal for this time of year, the mall’s in the university town and it’s finals’ week. What’s shopping? (Winco is attached to the mall, or I wouldn’t even be over there. There’s nothing I buy in the mall.)
    We were talking about the possibility of layoffs at the U, and we don’t think they’d affect him yet. The University will have to roll the clock back 20 years on its technology before they can lay off the guys who keep it operating. Right now, exams are all taken online. It’ll be a while: they will have to reaquire the capability to work offline. Also, we’ve talked to a fair number of people who think the way to survive a recession is to go back for a (nother) Master’s or Doctorate. You get out of the work force for a couple years and when the economy starts to recover you have a nice shiny degree to help you get a good job again.
    I guess it was probably a good plan through the last few recessions. We’ll see if the recovery is good enough this time for it to work out okay.

  9. dewey says:

    From St. Louis, the mall my husband sometimes shops at has reportedly been doing poorly for a year or two, with more and more empty stores and gang problems. We drove past it last Saturday and the parking lots were mostly empty – ten shopping days before Christmas, that has to be a very bad sign! There was a reasonably long line at Borders, if not the kind of hordes I have seen in previous years. Maybe bookstores are doing well because you can get a really useful or entertaining present more cheaply there. My family has a $20 present limit and almost all I’m giving are trade paperbacks.

  10. Just came back from the “Village” mall in Marin County, CA. At this time of year the mall is typically packed, with parking attendants and long waits for a spot, and a real crush once inside. This year there was no valet service and I drove right into a place and saw many others available as well. None of the stores were packed, it was all very civilized – if one considers malls an example of civilization. I was in and out in about 10 minutes, largely because all the stores I was interested in were no longer there.


  11. Gus says:

    I was at the grandaddy of all malls, the Mall of America on Sunday. It was busy, but not Christmas busy. If that is the Christmas rush there are a lot of stores in trouble there.

  12. Stephen B says:

    Well, this blog entry got me curious, so I drove off to my Walmart and Target. Crowds were big enough to tell me that it was no weeknight in late January, but neither store had anything approaching mid December crowds either. Target only had 4 of its dozen plus registers open while Walmart had about 7 out of 20 possible stalls open. Lines were fairly long at Walmart due to this shortage of registers while checkout lines at Target were nothing to complain about at all.

    Basically, while the stores weren’t dead, you could tell there was a sickness going on.

    As for converting malls to living space…wow, I just can’t envision that. I mean, there is no window space really, even if you installed lots of new windows around the perimeter. Then too, the cheap steel construction just won’t last long at all, especially the flat roofs. Such commercial roofs last 15 years tops, and usually start leaking like crazy well before that. The typical arsenal of rooftop HVAC units rust out and die in a dozen years too, even if you could find the gas and electricity to keep them running, they’ll bankrupt you.

  13. Laurie in MN says:

    Speaking from S. Minneapolis here:

    I can’t speak as to the malls, really — haven’t been to an actual indoor *mall* since we tried to go on the Friday after Thanksgiving. (I refuse to call it Black Friday — sounds like the day the stock market crashed in ’29!) I usually don’t go that day or *any* holidays, having worked retail myself, but we were making an attempt for some of the few presents we are buying this year. It was a no -go — cars circling the parking lot, and even the streets behind the place backed up to the point that we decided to abandon the mission. Typically, I can’t recall right now what we were looking for. Must have been real important…. ;) **

    For those in MN, the mall in question was Southtown, the strip mall just off of 494 and Penn. I usually shop at the Hancock there for my business. I avoid the Sprawl of America as much as I can. ;)

    What I *can* really comment on is the number of “For Lease” signs I’ve seen up in store fronts over the last 7 or 8 months, since I started paying attention. The total number is a little scary, and keeps slowly growing. Granted, many of them are on a major local street that has been undergoing MAJOR renovations over the past few (3?) years, where traffic was a mess and people started avoiding the place altogether. But I’m noticing that they are staying open, and not getting leased again in a few months, the way it has seemed to work in the past.

    I have noticed a few odd shortages at the grocery store. Nothing major, and not out for a long time, but shelves durn near empty. And that’s disorienting.

    People are muttering about the economy, but seem to be going about business pretty much as usual. I’m sure there is more attention being paid to how much is being spent for Christmas, but a lot of folks don’t seem to be *too* worried about it. Like “this, too, shall pass”. We are making little cuts at my assistance, but even my husband doesn’t seem too worried. I may need to direct him here. We DID decide not to exchange gifts with his side of the family this year, mostly on his mom’s behalf. She spends way more than she can afford in an attempt to make sure everyone has a “good Christmas”. Lots of baggage there, and all we can do is make sure we give BACK to her enough to offset it. She agreed with the “no presents” this year, though. We are getting her into a lower rate, fixed mortgage though, now that the interest rates have dropped a bit. She needs it — just purchased her current home a few years ago and her finances are a mess. And that’s all I’m going to say. Fortunately, she does live right down the block from us, and DH’s brother is about 5 – 10 minutes away from here. The boys may grumble about it, but the consensus is that we take care of Mom.

    My personal business (custom clothing, usually wedding, special occasion or costuming, and mending/alterations) is always a little slow this time of year anyway. It was slow this year due to a major source of referrals drying up, but I’m working on some other possibilities. I’m very close to putting fliers on all the doors in my neighborhood! (After the holidays!) It usually starts picking up around late February/March, so we’ll see how it goes. At least it’s a useful skill. :) And I’m pretty sure I can teach it to others if I have to.

    I’m starting to ramble now, so I’m going to bed. Right now, MN looks less shaky than other places, at least from where I sit. I’m still putting away staple food items (hard to do with my picky eater husband), trying to turn the temp down (65 during the day, but my hands need to work), and I need to plan my garden (withOUT taking out the shade maples in the back yard!). I’m on the waiting list for the community garden (up to 3 years!!), and debating making a pest of myself….ahhh, seeing if I can volunteer to help over there this summer and “learn more about gardening”. :) Which wouldn’t JUST be a ploy to get on their good side — I’ve only had my own vegetable for the last 2 years, and I have a lot to learn about soil amendment, etc. Have to make a trip to the library soon, and check out the bike store, too.

    Mostly, I get the feeling that folks are holding their breath and waiting for the other shoe to drop….

    **Towels — that was it. We were trying to pick up some new bath towels for us while they were on sale. At least it was something *practical*! :)

  14. Pony says:

    I’m in a suburb east of Seattle and I think the slow-down is either slower to come or less intense here. It was very busy at Costco yesterday – as usual, and even more so today, although some of that could be explained by people stocking up on food, because it is supposed to snow tonight and snow around here is rare enough that it causes a lot of traffic trouble, especially because we have so many steep hills. And it has been *very* cold for the last few days so there will be ice under it. However, even though we do hear about some layoffs, and a few stores have closed (Linens n Things, a couple of Chili’s restaurants), it doesn’t seem to be a big problem yet.

    Speaking of malls, we have two diametrically-opposed examples near here. One typical one has been moribund for years, only a couple of stores with outside entrances down at one end and the inside a wasteland.

    The other one, Crossroads in Bellevue is more like a real center of a community, it is so full of life and joy to visit. Every mall should be like this. Everybody knows that we are mad for books and coffee around here. Well, it’s got a Half-Price Books AND a Barnes and Noble, a Starbuck’s (one inside and one outside) and a newsstand with newspapers and magazines from around the world, a library branch, a mini-city hall, and the other day I noticed that there is a police precinct on an outside corner. The major treat is that all around the center are all kinds of international restaurants of the food-court style, but not one of them is a chain. And a public stage with free concerts every Friday and Saturday and often midday on weekends. And a giant chessboard, always busy and always with specators.

    They host all kinds of community events, like a volunteer opportunities showcase on weekends down the hallways. They have a community meeting room that any non-profit organization can use free, so I go there twice a month for genealogy club meetings and then we all adjourn for lunch to tables in the center of the place. These events draw shoppers. This mall is busy all the time. If more malls were like this, I’ll bet not so many readers here would hate them.

    There is also a Farmers Market outside but our farmers markets around here only last into mid- October. Obviously, part of that is because there aren’t a lot of fresh vegetables and flowers to sell after that, but there are a lot of other products that could still be sold, such as the soaps, honey, handcrafts, pasta, and dipping oils that I see in the summer, if indoor space was available. Clearly, some malls have space.

  15. Pony says:

    Laurie in MN: You said you are on a waiting list for the community garden for 3 years. It is great that you have a community garden but a shame that it can’t meet demand.

    Laurie, call your city hall and ask who is charge of it (probably Parks Dept.) then make an appointment to see that person and ask if the city plans to expand the space available, or if the city owns any more land that could be used for this purpose. (Might want to take a friend along for extra support.) Make the case that the need is here, and the time is now.

    If the answer is no, the time has come to make the case to the city council.

  16. bryan says:

    Another Australian -

    Darwin is still in party mode – let’s buy another big ute, whoo hoo! Big Screen TV yeah! Exporting Iron Ore, Coal & Natural Gas will last forever, and makes a whack of money, so who cares if we’re importing 50% of our oil. I’m in the pearl industry and we’re expanding like crazy to supply the growing bauble demand from, er, somewhere (actually, Arabia, for now!).

    On the other hand the neighbourhood shops are decaying. No point in walking to the local grocery store when we can drive to the big mega-mall for a great Chinese deal.

    Aussies still talk about the drought as if it will break – somehow I think that if it is dry for 19 out of 20 years that’s not drought, that’s climate.

  17. Rebecca says:

    I was on my way to meet a friend last night and had the occasion to drive through the biggest retail center in this city. On one hand I passed one of the malls and several shopping centers, on the other even more shopping centers. The parking lots were nearly empty in several locations, and not even the mall was full. There were a lot of going out of business discount signs, and a couple of the centers were nearly empty. One had only two stores -Circuit City and Linen’s ‘n Things, and at least the latter is closing down. This is in an area that hasn’t really been hit yet -we’re known as one of the most recession proof areas and most of the jobs are government or contractors.

  18. Laurie in MN says:

    Thanks for the suggestion. I actually got quite the low-down on the situation when I called to sign up. There has always been a perception of having to wait to get into the community garden — it’s been around since the 1940s, and is *very* established. But because there seemed to be new ground broken (or rather, newer plots being used) when I strolled through this summer/ fall, I asked if there were plans to expand, since there is actually quite a bit of land that isn’t in use.

    There is not, due to the city suddenly deciding it was some sort of liability. :( The garden is on the grounds of a local school with quite a chunk of land (for a residential city neighborhood) out back that isn’t being used otherwise. But, somehow, suddenly, the city has an issue with it. Their lease went from 1 page to 14, and they had to get a couple of MILLION dollars of insurance put on the place. :P This is actually one of the reasons that I want to get in there as a volunteer — so I can lend my voice to any protest that goes to the city regarding the restrictions that are slowly tightening around a real neighborhood resource. I mean, this place has a public flower/herb garden with pictures to show what’s where, and vegetable gardens that are used to donate food to the local food shelves. I can’t imagine what the city/school is thinking…

    The GOOD news is that occasionally there will be plots that are deemed “abandoned” (allowed to get overgrown with weeds, no response to reminders to tend, etc.) that are then given out to people on the list who want to take the time to clean them up. :) A woman I talked to this fall — who was walking back from HER fall cleanup while I was working in my front yard — got her plot that way. So there is hope! It’s just frustrating that the city can’t see the worth in what they have.

    But thanks for the suggestion! I might be back at some point asking for help if we do have to worry about its future!

  19. Pony says:

    Laurie, what your community garden needs is LOTS of positive publicity, articles in all sorts of newspapers and club bulletins about how wonderful it is, interaction between the gardeners and the students in the school -and their parents, talks to the Kiwanis, any way to raise its profile. Then the town council would be embarrassed to fail to support it.

    And there must be a way around that insurance/liability issue.

  20. Anonymous says:

    I’m in Utah. Drove by the indoor Mall yesterday and it looked packed.

    Went to the outdoor, mega ambiance, where all the rich kids go mall where Williams Sonoma is located. Williams Sonoma was doing a decent trade. There were a very few items on sale. People were purchasing full price items.

    I simply drooled. My Mom bought. But she bought with cash.

    The Gymboree there had an extra 25% off of everything in their store.

    I have yet to see 70% off sales. One local craft store had 50% off Christmas decorations.

    On weekend nights you can drive by Applebees, etc. and they are mobbed.

    I did see one house for sale that read ‘short sale’ in bold red letters.

    Utah tends to be the land where keeping up with the Jones’ is gospel, the size of your house equates your worth in the eyes of others, and credit cards are maxed out at alarming rates though too.

  21. Anonymous says:

    One store at our local mall that seems to be doing a booming business is the Bath and Bodyworks- I see tons of bags being carried around and there is generally a long line even though they have several cashiers on duty. That and Chick Fil A.

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  23. bufare says:

    That was a nice read.

  24. Roland says:

    Heredity: Everyone believes in it until their children act like fools!

  25. You have got your point over a lot better than I at any time might, thanks!

  26. A very fascinating examine, I may not concur completely, but you do make some quite legitimate factors.

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